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Shorter Reviews The Theory of Literary Criticism: A Logical Analysis, by John M. Ellis; pp. xiii 8c 274. London and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974, $11.00. While this book has useful things to say about literary criticism, they depend little on its argument. Ellis contends that theory in criticism has long been "stagnant and unprogressive," and he proposes to analyze basic positions and problems in "one sustained and systematic argument" (pp. 1, ix). For received theory, Ellis draws chiefly on Wellek and Warren's Theory of Literature (1949); and two MLA pamphlets (designed for beginning graduate students) edited by James Thorpe: The Aims and Methods of Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures (1963), and Relations of Literary Study (1967). This limiting strategy might be fruitful, if the analysis offered were more penetrating, consistent, and well informed. But as Ellis conceives "logical" or "conceptual" analysis (which he separates sharply from "empirical research"), he avoids any sophisticated treatment of either modern critical theory or analytical philosophy. Like many others, Ellis is concerned with "new perspectives on the analysis of theoretical problems," which he seeks by examining the "use" not the "reference" of terms and concepts—an approach he associates with Wittgenstein 's name, but not apparently his example. His argument develops in the perspective of this definition: ". . . literary texts are defined as those that are used by a society in such a way that the text L· not taken as specifically relevant to the immediate context of its origin" (p. 42; italics in the original). The inferences that Ellis draws from his "definition" do have a certain shrewdness, and they occasion some sound observations on the abuse of "research" to replace encounters with what literary texts actually say. We find that a "piece of literature" is made into "literature" by the community that uses it as such, not by the author who "intends" his text as "literary." Thus, texts are not an author's communication; nor should one be concerned with historical or biographical matters bearing on the text's origin, for by definition, this turns the "literary" text into something else. Style-substance and form-content dichotomies fall the same way, since the text is defined not by its properties, but by its use. Going around this circle, Ellis observes that a good literary text is one that "performs [its] task well and is eminently suitable for its characteristic use as a piece of literature" (p. 84). This seems to settle the traditional problems of intentionality, historical interpretation, and so forth, without engaging the actual complexities of the 354 Shorter Reviews355 issues; but it is clear that an argument pursued in this factitious way needs constant trimming and repair to stay clear of absurdity. Without a good idea of what a "literary text" is, Ellis's "logical analysis" is a largely vacuous exercise, for as he gives it, his "definition" will cover such things as the statement of scientific laws, logical formulae, recipes, cross-word puzzles, some graffiti, and most philosophical treatises. The "definition" is not just indiscriminately broad: it is fundamentally misconceived. The multitude of texts it will cover do have a common function: they help organize our collective lives; but the point of any use-related definition is to make precise discriminations. The relevant considerations to that end are just the issues Ellis attempts to dissolve; and to follow Ellis would be to give up making critical discriminations altogether. By his account, a best selling potboiler ought to count as a paradigmatic masterpiece, but instead of engaging this issue direcdy, he brings history in to insinuate that "literature" really means old texts, of time-tested value (cf. p. 147 ff.). The strengths in the book do not come from what its title pretentiously suggests, but indirecdy, in the testimony of an experienced teacher and reader that literature is used to educate, socialize, transmit values, and train the power of imagination (cf. pp. 244-45). The practical relevance of the book is in its implicit directive: attend with all your powers to what literary texts actually say—surely not a new suggestion. But aside from a failure to engage the very real changes in recent critical theory, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 354-355
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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